Waukesha’s bullying problem

Taking down signs appears to have stoked intolerance

By: - November 16, 2021 2:19 pm
Welcome to Waukesha sign

Photo by ShannonPatrick17 on Flickr | (CC BY 2.0) 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0

“We have a more serious problem than signs; we have a bullying problem. It seems to have grown in the last year,” said Bill Baumgart, a Waukesha school board member at a Nov. 10 Waukesha school board meeting.

At the beginning of the school year, Black Lives Matter signs were posted in many classrooms. Then some students began displaying Thin Blue Line flags — once seen as merely supportive of police but recently co-opted by rightwing racist groups and banned by many police departments. Rather than sorting out all the differences, Waukesha school superintendent James Sebert banned all “political” signs including the All Are Welcome rainbow signs of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Supporters of LGBTQ and minority students contend that taking down the signs sent a message that they were being marginalized. It sent a signal that these groups were less important than their fellow students and opened the door for  “different” students to be bullied, harassed and ridiculed. By removing all signage and not talking about the biases, the administration has made problems at school  worse. 

The public reacts

For the third month in a row, protesters on both sides of the issue came before the school board, forcefully but respectfully making their positions known. 

Those who support removing the signs came with a different perspective from the protesters.

“How do you mold society?” said the first citizen speaker. “You use signs and flags… Propagandists like to use these tools because it makes it appear that a minority viewpoint is a majority viewpoint. And for the useful idiots, this is often enough.” All the while he wore a black T-shirt with the words, “Let’s Go Brandon!” code for “F**k Joe Biden.”

Later another speaker came to the podium waving an American flag and wearing another “Let’s Go Brandon!” T-shirt. Her ironic message could not have been clearer as she spoke, saying, “I want a sign that says, ‘Respect one another’.”

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Said another speaker, “Smut is being allowed in our libraries and curriculum tries to indoctrinate our children through Critical Race Theory or cultural relevant teaching. … We live in America; we have one flag.”

Said another speaker, “Teachers here are on a crusade to convince students they are victims.”

A handful of speakers raised concerns over the achievement levels in the Waukesha school system.  The majority challenged the action of the superintendent in removing signs saying it  increased student bullying.

A teacher who is the advisor for the Waukesha West Black Student Union presented statements given by the students she represents. One student said, “The problem is racism is not being addressed as it should be.” Another student told her, “The environment at West is getting progressively and progressively worse. A lot of it is ignored and people should be educated on how they are hurting people.”

High school students described  bullying of  LGBTQ students.

“Students are terrified at school because they are afraid of what might happen to them,” said one student.

“Not every time when things get reported something happens,” said another. Waukesha students consistently stated that they are reluctant to report harassment not only because little happens to the offending students, but because students who make a  report are targeted for retaliation. 

“There are students that call you slurs in the halls; students who deface signs and drop them in front of you at lunch; students who threaten you every single day,” said a West freshman.

One student presented a five-point plan that the school board and administration should implement:

  • Allow teachers to show support for any students publicly
  • Institute a strict zero tolerance policy against bullying, harassment, or crime targeting students
  • Change the incident reporting system to include discrimination (Then you would get accurate information.)
  • Educate your students on the meaning of things that are “too political”
  • Include students in policies related to curriculum

“After three months of this debate, you should have just a little bit of a future plan, instead of postponing plans of actions,” one student said in a statement echoed by many others.

Administration makes its case

Superintendent Sebert turned his presentation over to deputy superintendent Joe Koch, who listed the competing signs and flags that greeted students at the beginning of the school year. “At what point do we say no to a sign?” asked Koch. He admitted that the district had no criteria to determine which  signs would be accepted and which would not. Signs posted by recognized organizations would be controlled by faculty advisors in their designated areas. Counseling services would also be given additional latitude in their offices. Given the current controversy, he said, other signs must come down.

Koch did not say  why the District Equity Leadership Team and diversity training for staff members had been suspended.

Superintendent Sebert said he was holding listening sessions at high schools and middle schools. He had been to North and West. He had additional meetings set up at South High School. Meetings included some of the groups considered targets of discrimination but also student council members. “Feedback has certainly been mixed,” he stated.

When asked whether bullying had increased in the school system this year, Koch conceded that one middle school was seeing a spike, but other schools were reporting numbers for bullying that were similar to previous school years. 

Koch added, “That doesn’t mean that all the incidences of bullying or the negative peer interactions that happen in the hallways have been reported or have even been coded as bullying… I can’t say what the students report today isn’t happening… Our students have shared that they have not felt comfortable reporting bullying…It has never been good,” even in previous years for reporting.

Koch outlined a series of steps to be taken when bullying is reported: interviewing, getting witnesses, corrective conversation with students, peer mediations, detentions, school suspensions, out of school suspensions. When bullying transitions into harassment, if it becomes severe, the remedy is expulsion.

Toughen up

“One thing we are hearing is that kids are begging and crying in desperation,” said school board member Karen Rajnicek. But, she said, she has limits to her sympathies.  White straight students get bullied when they bring a Bible to school, said Rajnicek. “So where is the Christian signs on a door?” 

“Are we going to have more signs so that more kids are divided?” she asked.  “Can we just have all teachers love all kids?”

“There have always been bullies, and, unfortunately, there always will. It is just a broken world, and there are mean people, and hurt people hurt people,” Rajnicek added. She attributed much of the misbehavior to COVID-19. Kids have had a year off from school and they forgot how to behave. “Just hold tight because things are going to get better. It’s not just Waukesha.”

She then told a the story about her cousin in middle school who people thought was gay. He was bullied; eventually he shot himself. After that, other students would come up behind her and make the gunshot noise to bully her. “People are awful; they have always been awful.”

“We are supposed to make you ready for life out there, and I don’t believe dividing you more and making you feel a sign is going to save you from that is going to help you… We can be victims or we can be victors.”

Challenges ahead

The entire board discussion was based upon a request by board member Greg Deets for the administration to outline why certain actions were taken and what the future might hold. He delivered his summation of the situation:

“I really don’t think our students should have to go to these extremes to advocate for themselves to feel welcome and safe in our buildings. I can see how it is affecting the social, emotional and mental health and their ability to learn… 

“This topic is negatively affecting our public relations efforts… Where you work, do you have policies on diversity, equity and inclusions? I do…

“It is going to be difficult to attract new families, new students, and new residents with all the negative publicity this is causing. In addition to that, we should be about recruiting a diverse staff that reflects our diverse student population. And I certainly don’t know how that is going to happen with everything that has been said and done over the last few months. If we look at our HR agenda tonight, we have an example of someone who had to take a strong look in the mirror and say this isn’t the district for me. I predict that number one [staff member quitting] is going to jump and jump and jump…

“I don’t believe there has been strong enough justification to move forward with this policy. I don’t think we can get anywhere as a district, including the area of achievement, unless we have that district-wide culture in our schools, unless we have that district of safety and acceptance.”

Future board actions

“This should be a board level decision,” said Montiho.  Then added, “The policy should stay as is… The administration is simply implementing our present policy.”

“I’m okay with this temporarily,” said school board member Amanda Roddy. However, she said, the district needs to do a better job educating students on these issues. “The American flag does not have the same effect for all people.”

School board president Joseph Como was the last board member to speak. “If you look at our board policies, we are very clear we do not want bullying or harassment or discrimination of any kind,” he said. “It is up to the administration to take these policies and implement them.” Concluded Como, “Sometimes it takes time to work through things, and this is one of those cases.”

The board ended the discussion without taking any actions.

Alliance reacts

Laura Pinsoneault says she is one of many voices that can speak for the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a grassroots organization that is advocating protecting the safety of all students.

After observing the last school board meeting, Pinsoneault says, “We were disappointed that the presentation by the administration was not more robust. … It was not evidenced based and did not offer any solutions other than more listening and asking for more time.”

 According to the Alliance, the administration is focusing only on a narrow issue of bullying and not the broad issues of discrimination and inclusion. “We hope that they look at multifaceted solutions, that they don’t drag their heels. … We would really like to see them put the safeguards back in place.”

Pinsoneault is  aware that various student groups are meeting and talking together about what they will do next. But she is quick to point out that the Alliance only knows indirectly about these groups.

Last Sunday, Alliance organizers met, but are not prepared to state what their next steps might be. Pinsoneault would only say, “We are already making decisions.” They gave the board and administration a deadline  of Dec. 1 to act. What will follow after that date if the district does not respond satisfactorily is unknown.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.

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